Love Actually did not make a strong enough impression on me ten years ago for me to be able to honestly use words such as “despise” or “loath.” I remember disliking it. I remember it being popular enough to be surprised by my dislike. I didn’t review it. If I didn’t have this column, I wonder if I would have spared another thought for it.
As 2013 draws to a close, I made a final review of prominent films from a decade ago. I was surprised to find Love Actually on IMDB’s list of the “most popular” movies of 2003. Critics were less kind to the film, though it remains barely “fresh” (63%) at Rotten Tomatoes. Typical narrative, I thought: general public embracing something that critics are less thrilled with. I tend to like populist fare more than some of my colleagues–heck I had Pirates of the Caribbean as my favorite film of that year–so maybe time would make me less of a self-conscious snob? Plus Richard Curtis wrote Notting Hill, which I liked, and both wrote and directed About Time, which my colleague Alissa Wilkinson indicated was better than the trailers made it look.
Alas, no. No to all of it. No to it being a holiday film, a love film, a romantic film, or a feel good film. No, above all to it being truthful about the world we live in. No to the masses being smarter than the critics. No to some of the best actors of our generation elevating mediocre material. I still can’t bring myself to hate this movie, but I do feel sympathy (and yes, if I’m honest, condescension) towards those who embrace it.
What I Said Then
I did not review Love Actually for Viewpoint in 2003. According to my user account at Rotten Tomatoes (I wasn’t a Tomatometer critic at the time), I recorded 1 and 1/2 stars (out of five) and a one word commentary: “tedious.” I love that the film apparently engendered such indifference in me that I couldn’t even be bothered to capitalize the “t.”
Andrew Sarris claims to have “thoroughly enjoyed” the movie (until the end), while Stanley Kauffmann credits the actors for making it “delightfully moving” despite its “wobbles.” Richard Roeper simply calls it a “terrific film.” Roeper’s then partner, Roger Ebert, cites it being a little too crowded as its only flaw, saying it is full of “warmth and laughs.”
The naysayers? Rex Reed takes a sideways swipe at the Coen brothers while saying it is “uninspired and unoriginal.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone faults the writing more than the direction for the film’s failure. A. O. Scott calls the film “A patchwork of contrived naughtiness and forced pathos.” Finally, Boston Globe writer Ty Burr says “will delight moviegoers who think that more really is more.”
What I Say Now
I might as well be up front about the complaint that will most likely win me the least traction. The story line about a pair of stand ins for sex scenes gradually forming an emotional attachment while nude and simulating sex automatically takes this film out of consideration (for me) for being a holiday film or an innocuous family comedy of the sort that could be watched each year at Christmas. What is this plot line–and that of Bill Nighy as a too besotted to give a damn musician telling kids to become performers so that they can get free drugs–doing in the same film as Liam Neeson’s arc in which he must convince his grade-school son to confess his puppy love to the most popular girl in school? Feel free to tell me I am a prude or that Brits and Europeans are more casual about nudity and sex than Americans. It’s not that I think a movie can never have these elements, but they do seem out of place in a movie that is trying so hard for “warmth” as well laughs.
The film is unapologetically upbeat in its insistence that coming clean with your feelings is the only thing standing in the way of the lonely and their eventual happiness. Are you in love with your friend’s newlywed wife? Tell her! It’s Christmas, after all, and as long as you insist you are doing so with “no expectations” then threatening her (and his) marriage is a brave and noble thing to do.
At least three of the story lines end with handsome, powerful males emotionally humbling themselves before the women they love. Think of it as the “I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy, asking him to love me” speech delivered by Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, only with the genders reversed. I understand on a cultural level the message that we all–but men especially–could stand to be more direct in communicating our feelings. But is that the only thing that needs to happen to have healthy, happy relationships?
I pondered two additional points on revisiting the film. First, of all the films I revisited from 2003 this year, this is the one that looked and felt as though it could have come out yesterday. I don’t mean that as a compliment. Sure, Keira Knightley and Bill Nighy look a little younger but Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, and Laura Linney are of an age where their faces and body shapes have not altered much. Beyond that, though, this observation speaks to the generic nature of the movie. It’s neither topical nor memorable. Each of the story lines has one obstacle, one idea, and there is not much to be done but wait for it to be approaching its conclusion for the characters in it to have their epiphanies. (A classic example of the film biding its time is a scene in which Alan Rickman’s character is trying to get jewelry gift wrapped before his wife shows up and is thwarted by a tediously unfunny Rowan Atkinson. You could drop this scene whole into any romantic comedy/adultery movie and it would play exactly the same way. There is nothing distinctive about it or how the characters in it respond. There are only one dimensional, stock characters here.) If poetry is that which defies narrative summary, Love Actually is one of the most prosaic movies I’ve ever seen. That it is so while being about one of the most poetic of human concepts–love–is in large part what makes it so tedious.
One final personal note. Perhaps one of the most significant things that happened to me in the last decade was the death of my sister-in-law. She was a smart, vibrant, funny woman who, much to my surprise, adored this movie. There is a dissertation to be written somewhere (else) about how critics are influenced–or not–by personal friends and family members. It’s easy enough to call the hoi poloi morons or idiots when they embrace some fare that you find less than adequate. It is harder when those idiots have a face, a name, and a history of sound judgment in your life. Non-professional friends and family members have occasionally saved me from too quick misjudgments. Even more so, they have on a few occasions saved me from too much snark, reminding me–and I need to be reminded–to try to limit my comments to the art object and to be careful about making judgments towards those who value it differently.
After I pretty much knew my opinion of the film had not changed, I spent most of the second half trying to see it through another’s eyes, to understand what in it resonated with her even if on some formal or intellectual level the film hadn’t (in my mind) earn the endearment she so strangely gave it. I have my thoughts about what I learned from that exercise, but they are deeply personal and so I’ll keep them to myself. I will use this conclusion as a teachable moment, however, to remind myself and my readers that as an exercise, trying to understand why others love something (or someone) is much more rewarding than explaining to them why they shouldn’t.